The Best Laid Plans: Vanity and Building Bigger Barns:
Ecc. 1:2, 12-14, 2:18-23 and Luke 12:13-21
They say that there are a few subjects of which one should not speak in polite company. Two of them are money and religion. And, what do we have here: two scripture readings about money and work. That's convenient. I wonder what kind of good news they contain for this fine Sunday morning. Let's look at Ecclesiastes... "Vanity of vanities... all is vanity... seeking wisdom is an unhappy business... I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun... gave my heart up to despair... all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation." Ok. That doesn't really seem like good news at all. It's actually kind of a downer. Alright. Well then. How about the Gospel? Luke usually has some good news. Let's see what story Jesus is sharing with his friends.
First there's an argument that Jesus wants to avoid about an inheritance. Then, he teaches people with a parable about a rich farmer. He had a good year and the land was pretty productive. That seems like good news. Who doesn't like a rich harvest? Jesus said that the farmer talks to himself about what to do with his excess. What he, under the guidance of himself, decides to do is to tear down his barns and build bigger ones to store all of his excess grain and other goods. The scripture tells us that the guy said, "I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years: relax, eat, drink, be merry." Nobody else is talking to him in this story. Wait... the next line has another voice. Oh, and it's God. Even better. What is God going to say to this happy man who is talking to himself. "You fool." That's right. God says, "You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?" Wait... did God just say that the happy guy who is talking to himself is going to die? And, did God just chastise him for worrying too much about his own future? Sure sounds like it. In the next line Jesus shares the moral of the story: "So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God." Ok then. Turns out that this Luke story isn't real chipper, either. Maybe that's why they say not to talk about money and religion. Things get really intense really fast.
Here's the thing though. I do think money, work, and religion are connected, and not just in a manipulative, televangelist kind of way. Our work and our ability to have the means to survive day to day greatly affect our faith. And, our faith can be a valuable tool in shaping our work and our relationship with money and our possessions. It can be difficult to discern the best way to have these two parts of our lives, our work and financial lives and our faith, intersect and inform one another in ways that are healthy. I think that both of these scriptures can tell us something important about how we work, how we relate to what we earn, and how to connect these things with our faith.
Let's take a moment to look at the passage from Luke. It's starts out with a guy trying to get Jesus to arbitrate a dispute about an inheritance. This is the second time somebody has tried to rope Jesus into a family argument and he won't have it. Rather than get in the middle of an argument this family should be able to manage themselves, he takes the time to talk about the ways that love of possessions can distract you from what is most important in life. He says, "one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions." He then told the story about the guy who wants to build bigger barns. A couple scholars I read this week pointed out something that I missed when I was reading this scripture. Did you all notice who the guy was talking to during the story? Himself. Only himself. He talks to himself about his money. He congratulates himself on his good fortune and good planning. He tells himself to relax because he's got his own future figured out. Where is everybody else? I mean, he's a farmer with a lot of land. It is very unlikely that he has done all this work on his own. Have you ever heard of a barn-raising with just one guy? Why isn't he consulting with anyone else about these important decisions in his life?
A couple different scholars that I read this week suggested that the reason this matters is because it demonstrates that this man has forgotten something very important: he's forgotten that his actions affect others. You might wonder if he has a good reason for not talking to anybody else. Maybe he doesn't have any family. He shouldn't be penalized for that. You would be right if that were the case. But, I don't think it is here. I don't think Jesus' intention was to describe someone who was alone. I think he wanted to describe someone who was only willing to think about his own needs. That's why he doesn't consult anyone else. At the end of the story, Jesus' critique of the man was that he stored up treasures for himself and had forgotten to be rich towards God, not that he was lonesome and didn't have anyone to talk to. You might then ask, how would this story be different if the man had chosen to be rich towards God?
Here's one possible alternate reading. A rich man's farm did really well one season and he was able to raise an abundant harvest. Seeing that he had more than he could possibly use, he wondered what he would do with it. He prayed to God, asking for guidance on how to use this excess well. He spoke with the supervisors on his farm and sought their advice. At the synagogue, he spoke with the priests to see if they knew of any needs. In the end, he offered some of his crop to a neighbor who's fields had not been nearly so bountiful. He also gave his employees a bonus, making sure that they, too, profited from their hard work. He gave to the temple, too, offering a sacrifice in thanks for his good fortune. He saved the last bit extra for a rainy day. He knew that not every year would be as good as this one.
Do you hear the difference that adding consultation with God and with others who are affected by your work makes? I think the second version of the story is closer to the ideal that Jesus has been describing to us. With conversation, prayer, and consultation, this is becomes a story not about the farmer's fool hardy planning, but, instead, a story of compassion and generosity. This becomes a story shaped by faith more than fear for the future. This is a version of the story that demonstrates richness towards God and neighbor. This is the version of the story that we are called to live out. But, it is not so easy to live a life of confident generosity. Let us not forget the curmudgeon in Ecclesiastes. We must wrestle with his story as well. He is one who has been burdened by his work. He believes that all the work that he has done has been done in vain. He is frustrated by the idea that someone else will enjoy his work, whether or not they deserve it. Ultimately, later in the book, he will continue the work he has started. However, he does so with a much more cynical view. In light of Jesus' call to be rich towards God, how are we to engage with the cynical account of toil?
Part of me wonders if a major gift of Ecclesiastes is that this book holds space for the grumpy and burnt out and cynical. It serves a witness to what can happen when our work as people of faith in communities of faith feels forced and meaningless. When we hear the words of the narrator, the one often called Qoheleth, we can remember what it feels like when work is only toil and even the search for wisdom feels meaningless. More importantly, we can remember that we can feel all kinds of cynical and still be a beloved child of God. After all, the narrator's testimony is still here... still included for us to learn from. Even the curmudgeon isn't excluded from God's grace. Maybe that's part of the gift of this scripture, too. We will sometimes feel like our work has been in vain. We will sometimes worry about our future and be tempted to store up possessions in order to insulate ourselves from fear. Even then, we will still be beloved, and that love will call us once again out beyond ourselves, beyond the cynicism, fear, and worry, back to generosity, peace, and connection. Love will call us out of the big barns of our own building, back to the tables of fellowship and joy. Whether we are the curmudgeon or the guy with the barns, disconnected from neighbor and not talking to God, we can remember that we are still beloved. We always have the chance to turn back towards that love.
Resources Pastor Chrissy Consulted when writing this sermon:
Meda Stamper: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2923
Karoline Lewis: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4693
Elisabeth Johnson: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1725
David Lose: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=720
Walter Brueggemann, An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003)
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.